Nick Coleman perpetuates his Notre Dame depth chart surprise at free safety

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Nick Coleman had Flavor of the Week written all over him.

Less than six months after a depth chart free fall that left the Notre Dame two-time starter at cornerback a sixth option at best by the end of the 2016 football season, Coleman trotted out the first day of spring practice March 8 with the first-team defense.

At free safety.

The move spoke to the 6-foot, 187-pound junior’s resilience every bit as much as it did to new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s inclination to give everyone a clean slate.

“When one door closes, one door opens,” Coleman said philosophically.

If the snapshot still looks the same in August, the former three-star recruit who only dabbled at safety in high school — and not at all since then ‘til this spring — would be the player whose benefit from head coach Brian Kelly’s massive offseason staff overhaul was both the most dramatic and most tangible.

Yet sometimes even the best spring story lines and experiments-gone-right lack longevity. That still could happen to the former running back standout at Kettering (Ohio) Archbishop Alter High, who played for state titles back in Ohio with current ND wide receiver Chris Finke and former Irish QB Malik Zaire.

But as the Irish blipped past the halfway point of spring practice on Saturday, with session No. 8, Coleman had yet to be displaced.

“For me to tell you today that he’s our starter, he’s our guy, we need more of a body of work,” Kelly said Friday, “but he won’t be moving anywhere else. He’ll be a safety.”

It was Kelly’s idea to move both Coleman and fellow junior corner Ashton White to the safety position group. Kelly floated the idea to Coleman during his exit interview in December.

Shortly thereafter, Coleman tracked down Elko’s phone number, upon his mid-December hiring, and called him up on his own to get their relationship started. Unbeknownst to Coleman, they kind of already had one.

“He actually recruited me when he worked for Bowling Green,” Coleman said. “I didn’t know that. Once he told me, I was like ‘Oh, right, right, right.’ He’s a great guy. I’m happy he’s with us.”

What would make Elko and Kelly happy is if Coleman’s speed translates into range and his athleticism into tackling.

When the Irish last logged team-wide 40-yard dash times, in the spring of 2016, Coleman ran in the high 4.4s. Meanwhile, departing grad senior Avery Sebastian, the starter at free safety in the 2016 opener at Texas, ran a 4.89 and a 4.96 for NFL scouts during Notre Dame’s Pro Day on March 23.

“If you look at our safeties, we’ve got some physical safeties, certainly,” Kelly said. “But profiling somebody that has corner skills playing the safety position, you can imagine that he brings a different skill set to the position.”

Then-freshman Devin Studstill ended up making nine starts at free safety in 2016, becoming the first Irish freshman to start more than half the team’s games at that position since Bobby Taylor in 1992. But Kelly/Elko have moved him, too.

At his juncture, he’s ND’s No. 1 option at strong safety when Drue Tranquill is manning the new rover positon, and Tranquill’s backup when the senior captain is playing a traditional safety spot.

Sophomore Jalen Elliott and junior Nicco Fertitta appear to be Coleman’s only real competition.

“I’ve enjoyed it so far,” Coleman said of the switch. “I feel like it’s a lot more action. I feel like every play I have an opportunity to make an impact on the game.

“The more comfortable you get, the more confident you get and the more reps you get. It comes together.”

Coleman also knows what it feels like for it all to fall apart. He started two of Notre Dame’s first three games last season and made 14 of his season total 17 tackles in those three games.

But he became susceptible to the big play and Kelly, upon firing defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder after game 4, turned to then-freshmen Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr. to play alongside senior Cole Luke.

Except for special teams play, Coleman virtually disappeared.

“That’s the whole part about handling adversity,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to control your situation in certain times of your life. At that point, you just control what you can control. And that’s what I tried to do.

“I just took it in stride. At that point, you can’t really get down on yourself. You just keep it, use it as motivation and use it as a learning tool as well.”

Coleman’s still learning, just differently. He finds himself studying plays on his iPad more than ever before and frequently dropping in on Elko in his office for extra tutoring.

“He’s never too busy to talk,” Coleman said. “He’s easy to talk to.”

And every day Coleman feels less like a mirage and more like a potential starter.

“You have to carry yourself like that,” he said. “You’re kind of the quarterback of the defense. You see the big picture. You see the whole thing. You got to be more vocal, it’s kind of more of a leadership role. So it’s great.”

Notre Dame junior Nick Coleman has been on a roll since switching from cornerback to free safety in the offseason. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)